Rita Barbera, a scandal-tainted stalwart of Spain’s ruling People’s Party (PP) and mayor of the Mediterranean city of Valencia for 24 years, died of a heart attack in Madrid on Wednesday in a hotel near parliament.
An unmistakable figure in Spanish politics since the 1980s with her trademark string of pearls, red suits and heavy makeup, Barbera, 68, was for many a symbol of the corruption ingrained into the highest levels of the country’s establishment.
On Monday, she appeared before the Supreme Court under investigation for money laundering during her time as mayor of Valencia. She said in court her center-right PP in Valencia had never taken any illegal financing and denied any wrongdoing.
Known as "the Boss" and "the mayoress of Spain" by supporters, Barbera was an integral part of Valencian life, appearing on the balcony of the town hall every March flanked by young girls in local dress for the regional festival of Las Fallas marked by parades and fireworks.
"We are deeply affected. She dedicated her life to Valencia," Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told journalists.
The parliament held a minute of silence to honor her before its Wednesday session. Deputies from the left-wing anti-austerity party Podemos left the chamber during this time.
"We’re not going to participate in a tribute to a person whose political journey has been scarred by corruption," said Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias.
Barbera and her fellow PP politicians at the regional government of Valencia presided over a decade of easy money at low interest rates after Spain joined the euro in 1999.
Buoyed by soaring property prices, the region spent billions hosting the America’s Cup sailing competition and the European Grand Prix motor race, building one of the biggest aquariums in Europe and a Sydney-style opera house.
The years of free spending came to abrupt end with the bursting of the real estate boom in 2008 and the collapse of local banks, bringing the region to the brink of being bailed out by the central government at the height of the euro zone debt crisis.
In municipal elections in May 2015, the PP lost the city of Valencia for the first time in decades to a new political party Compromis, linked to leftist Podemos.
Spain’s Supreme Court said in September it would investigate Barbera for alleged money laundering offences. It was an embarrassing development for Rajoy’s party, which was attempting at the time to form a national government after two inconclusive general elections.
Barbera denied any wrongdoing but resigned from the party after the court opened the investigation. However, in a controversial move lambasted by the media, she refused to give up her seat in Spain’s upper house of parliament.